Addressing California’s Drug Court Downfall

In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, which recategorized a number of non-violent felonies as misdemeanors. Among other things, the law significantly downgraded penalties for drug possession. As CalMatters reports, that has led to a massive decline in the number of drug offenders participating in drug courts.

A 2020 paper from the New York-based Center for Court Innovation surveyed California drug courts after the passage of Prop. 47 and found participation was down statewide by 67% between 2014 and 2018…

In San Diego County, more than 650 people participated in drug court in the 2013 fiscal year, two years before Prop. 47 was enacted. That was down to 255 people last year. 

In Alameda County, more than 640 people attended drug courts between January 2014 and September 2015, an average of 30 people per month. After the passage of Prop. 47, that dropped to 14 people per month in the 2015 fiscal year, and it has stayed at that rate since. 

San Mateo County officials saw fewer than five people per month in drug court after the passage of Prop. 47. The court is now considering expanding its eligibility requirements to include felony crimes.

 Why does it matter? Data has consistently shown that drug courts are successful at reducing recidivism rates

While Proposition 47 hastened California’s drug court downfall, the decline first began with state prison realignment in 2011. AB 109 removed drug court funding for counties. Instead, the state gave money directly to county behavioral health departments to spend at their discretion.

Some county prosecutors are trying to think of ways to revive the successful drug court model despite the lack of incentives for offenders to show up. Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig is implementing what he calls Drug Court 2.0. It expands drug court diversion program eligibility. And instead of phone calls, county health representatives meet with offenders while they're still in the courtroom to get the diversion process started in person. 

“It’s having a lot more success than the phone calls did,” Reisig said.   

Read more about the decline of California's drug courts at CalMatters